leaving las vegas

Worst Best Picture: Is The Lost Weekend Better or Worse Than Crash?

the lost weekend

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1945 winner The Lost Weekend. Is it better than Crash?

If a movie “doesn’t hold up” what exactly does that mean?

People don’t love The Lost Weekend like they used to love it. It is perhaps the best example of a movie that was brilliant at the time but seems silly now. It’s the story of a momentous weekend in the life of Don (Ray Milland), an alcoholic in the truest sense of the word. Don promises his brother that he’ll go away with him for the weekend and try to write, but his brother is clearly nervous about Don’s very recent patch of sobriety. The characters hint at how bad Don is when he drinks, but for the first 10 minutes of the movie there is no alcohol.

That is the last time that is true.

Alcoholism is often glamorized in film, to the degree that I can really only think of three 100% negative portrayals. I’m sure there are more, but here are my three:

1. Leaving Las Vegas, the sad story of a man who gives up on life and decides to drink himself to death in Vegas.

2. Successful Alcoholics, a nearly perfect short film featuring Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller as two alcoholics who drink nearly nonstop but still “function.”

3. The Lost Weekend

All three are essentially the same story, told differently. While Leaving Las Vegas and Successful Alcoholics show a little bit of an upside, The Lost Weekend is a battering ram of the rest of the disease. Don is a disaster. He can’t keep a relationship, he can’t keep a job, and he can’t even keep his own family. He blows off the weekend trip with a story that he’ll take the later train (with no intention of making it) and scours his apartment for any hidden booze. Finding none, he heads down to his favorite bar and drinks shots of rye whiskey until he can’t stand up.

The next two days are a continued disaster of cheap whiskey and fear. Don explains to the bartender and various women that he wants to stop, doesn’t want to stop, can’t stop, must stop, will never stop, and so on. It’s a haunting portrayal of the last days of a man who has given in to the worst parts of himself. Ray Milland is excellent in the role, and other than small parts for women, the bartender, and an alcoholic ward nurse, there’s really no room for anyone else. It’s all him losing his mind in the middle of the frame, over and over. He robs people, hides whiskey, and falls deeper into drink and into himself.

The movie has been rethought lately and seems to be seen as too over-the-top to be relevant. Leaving Las Vegas is an extremely similar story, and I can definitely see how it’s more effective for a modern audience. Successful Alcoholics is just a short you can see for free online, but it’s the most chilling of the three, for me. All of them are trying to send the same message — drinking is wrong, if you’re an alcoholic — but they do it through different narratives. The main characters in the other two stories are functional alcoholics. They insist they are fine until something so bad that they can’t stop it happens. The Lost Weekend is about when you can’t function anymore. Don is beyond the farthest anyone can go, and it’s definitely shocking to watch.

That’s the main takeaway from The Lost Weekend: the shock. It’s a movie from nearly 70 years ago, but it’s about a universal reality of humanity. We like alcohol, but a lot of us are afraid of it. I don’t think anyone could watch this and not relate to Don, or at the very least the terror of being consumed by something completely.

The Best Part: A lot of people will find it absurd now, but I love the soundtrack. Every time Don is consumed by his demons, a creepy theremin plays in the background. It feels ghostly and strange, which is a great effect. It happens… a lot, which is why the soundtrack is both the most iconic part of The Lost Weekend and the most derided element. Your mileage may vary.

The Worst Part: Everyone other than the lead is a bit forgettable. The women in Don’s life are mostly figurative nurses and the men scold him and berate him, but everyone’s essentially the same non-character. The bartender at his favorite bar has some memorable moments and his girlfriend is essential to the plot, but no one really sticks out aside from Ray Milland. It’s a one-man show.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Leaving Las Vegas is so tonally similar to this that I wonder if we’ll get a remake of Crash in 50 years or so. Check back then to see. No, really, please don’t remake Crash.  The Lost Weekend will be silly to a lot of people, but it will be chilling for just as many. I think the reality is that a lot of the effects are dated, but the message is timeless enough to carry the narrative. It holds up for me, but even if it doesn’t for you you’ll love it more than the disjointed message of Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.